University of Free State violence: ‘It was a matter of survival’
- Greg Nicolson
- South Africa
- 24 Feb 2016 01:08 (South Africa)
Student and worker protests have been a feature at universities over the last year. But when demonstrators occupied a rugby pitch at the University of the Free State on Monday, they were attacked by spectators and pursued by police, exposing enduring inequality in both the university and the country. By GREG NICOLSON.
The third-year student leader is scared that if she shares her name she will be targeted, maybe by police, perhaps by UFS management. Luthando is a pseudonym. “We know what happens when we speak up… I am very worried they are going to come for me,” she said.
On Monday, she woke up as normal, attended class and then went to support the workers’ strike. Protesters were out for their third day since Thursday, complaining that the agreement reached with UFS last year against outsourcing has not been implemented. “What was different from the other days was they were locked out,” said Luthando, who, like other students, had been supporting the worker rallies for a few hours each day.
Employee issues at UFS have a history. Back in 2009, recently-appointed Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Jansen decided to drop charges against students who urinated in food and fed it to cleaning staff. That was just one in a list of alleged racist incidences at the varsity.
On Monday, another chapter was written. Locked out of the main gate, police blocking their way, the workers tried to march to another gate. Demonstrators then moved to another gate and when they were blocked there went back to the main UFS entrance. At the same time, students were mobilising in support inside the campus.
“I believe that [the police] got pissed off because they realised that we were messing with them,” said Clarence Debeila, a union organiser for the General Industry Workers Union of SA, which he said has featured in a number of the protests at tertiary institutions against outsourcing. Multiple sources said that while workers were returning to the main gate, the police fired teargas and arrested employee leaders.
Debeila, who then went to the police station to post bail, said that was the first instance of violence during the day, from the police.
Mobilising inside the campus, students were determined that workers fired for protesting should be reinstated and that the outsourcing agreement should be implemented. The police crackdown and arrests were the catalysts for what happened later.
“You can imagine how that angered students and workers,” said SRC President Lindokhule Ntuli.
That anger was further fuelled by what black activists at UFS say is a pattern of repeated disregard for their concerns. Every time they raise issues of pain they’re “klapped with reconciliation and togetherness”, said Luthhando, touching on Jansen’s Rainbow Nation-inspired response to the country’s challenges. Raising black concerns at UFS is considered as racist, she said. “The university will always prioritise white privilege,” Ntuli added.
So the students and workers decided to interrupt the Varsity Cup match between UFS’s Shimlas and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. “We knew that Jansen would be there watching this rugby game…so we said let’s go there and get this man’s attention,” said Itumeleng Lecheko, a UFS student and supporter of #OutsourcingMustFall.
Arriving at the Shimlas ground, the protesting students and workers had trouble getting inside, with police and staff blocking the entrance. Once they finally entered they stood aside and sang until the first break in the match, around 17 minutes in. Videos show about two dozen black protesters singing on the pitch and negotiating with young white men in Shimlas shirts (the players however were off the pitch and were reportedly not involved). Jansen was watching and they were trying to get his attention, singing in a circle.
Luthando said there were five men who came to talk with them. “They were saying other people are coming. We said, ‘Bring them they must come.’” Shocked, she then saw men and women rush from the stands. “They sort of came down from every direction,” she said. The protesters were outnumbered and videos show black demonstrators being beaten by white rugby fans.
“As they came down their fathers also came down. One minute we’re not trying to disturb their rugby game, we’re just trying to get Jansen’s attention,” said Lecheko. “It happened so quick.” He said once the female protesters ran away, the men were beaten and bottles were thrown at them as they were called k******, animals, and told to fuck off.
UFS head Jansen was there. He told media on Tuesday he felt “disgust and dismay” at the spectators’ violent reaction to the peaceful rugby interruption, saying it “not only opened old wounds, it trampled, literally and figuratively, on the dignity and humanity of other human beings”. Jansen said the university is engaging on workers’ issues. He also suggested the protests were attempts at grandstanding in an election year and led by people without links to the university.
“What happened shouldn’t have happened. I think it’s something that happened accidentally but white guys who attacked us would do anything to protect their culture,” said Lecheko. Other demonstrators weren’t as diplomatic – they said as soon as the fights broke out, at least three white people were attacking every black person.
Morgan Piek, a sports journalist who was covering the rugby match and whose video of the violence was retweeted hundreds of times, said the trouble started before the game. “These guys are very sensitive about their rugby,” he said of the fans. “[Protesters] just walked onto the field but they were there with the purpose of ending the match.” Given the likelihood of protests and response from fans, Piek questioned why there wasn’t more security for the match, which was, he said, a “soft target”.
When the protesting students eventually made it back to campus, some seeking to confront white student residences, they were confronted by white students and their families. “Let’s call it an army-ish of white people,” said Luthhando. “They had real guns.” Media reports and three sources said they saw who they believed were white parents with handguns. When the confrontation led to stone throwing and later police intervention, protesting students said only the black group was targeted by the SAPS with rubber bullets.
“Yesterday was a culmination of continued suppression of black students and black pain,” said Luthando. “Yesterday, to be honest with you, it was really a matter of survival…You start to question a lot of things.”
On Tuesday, students continued to protest at UFS as classes were cancelled.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, the rugby match continued, delayed but ultimately undeterred by the racial attacks. Shimlas beat Madibaz 46-19, the defending champions maintaining their undefeated record – although whatever the result, it’s clear that UFS lost more than it won. DM
Photo of Shimla Violence via YouTube.